A guide to finding and fighting villains. Includes reflections on the difference between a business's problems and a business's villain
TLDR This article is about villain strategy, which is the art of finding, vetting, and naming or “all-but-naming” (alluding to) a villain; this includes figuring out how the villain in questions differs from and is connected to important business problems.
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What is a villain to you - in the context of your brand’s positioning strategy and even your business model?
I’m not sure what you think a villain in the context of brand strategy, but in this essay I assume a very specific definition. A villain brand is:
a specific brand which is a direct or indirect competitor to your own; you share customers
usually the best known company in your industry
the conventional wisdom choice for customers (“no one ever got fired for hiring IBM”)
unable to compare favorably against your own brand, for a given segment of its customers, partly because a villain is,
counterintuitively problematic for its own customers
And that’s the most interesting point - for a segment of your customers, the villain brand has become, over time in a boiled frog way, a simmering, unspoken or obscured problem, - even while still partially perceived as a viable solution
But the key is that a villain is something you share with your customers; it’s something you can bond over.
Your customer’s business problems, therefore, are not the villain, no matter how expensive, urgent, and far-reaching. On this point, my definition of villain differs from the conventional wisdom among branding, positioning, business, and marketing strategists.
Examples of Villain Strategy
Of course, the consumer villain strategies are best known. Coke and Pepsi were both the villain of 7-Up, though instead of citing them by name, it merely referenced them by calling itself the “uncola”.
But Apple definitely name-checked its villain, Windows, in what was as much a B2B campaign as a B2C one.
In a national TV campaign in the US, Apple publicly called out Windows by personifying it as an out-of-touch, stuffy, unfashionable, arrogant, smarmy, dorky, awkward, overweight and altogether un-relate-able middle manager. The personification of Apple compared favorably in all respects (although under my critical young-person gaze eyes, he also seemed a bit square, though more nerdy than dorky).
A few other examples of the successful B2B villain strategy against Microsoft.
Challenger brand: Google, Villain Brand: Microsoft (in many domains)
Challenger brand: Slack, Villain Brand: Microsoft Teams
Challenger brand: Zoom, Villain Brand: Microsoft Skype
Challenger brand: Basecamp, Villain Brand: Microsoft Project
Challenger brand: Dropbox, Villain Brand: Microsoft OneDrive
The question is, do you have a villain, do you need to call it out like Apple or should you be more subtle as Zoom was? Or do you even need a villain strategy? I don’t think every tech brand does - for some, naming and solving business problem works.
Let’s Talk About My Problems
In businesses and other orgs, there are normal, standard problems, and then there are expensive problems.
To add another dimension to that simple standard-vs-expensive spectrum there are also abstract problems vs concrete problems.
And then, plot-twist, there are villains, which are connected to some kinds of problems.
In theory, a company originates from its founder scratching their own itch, then selling the itch-scratching to others with the same problems. Maybe so, but even then, a constant re-examination helps, so let’s explore ways for brands to look at their customers’ problems.
Standard vs Expensive Problems
Jonathan Stark has a good definition of the latter. He defines an expensive problem as:
A painful issue that a business is aware of and would happily pay money to alleviate. Potentially the answer an owner would give to a question like, “What keeps you up at night?"
- Jonathan Stark
This is a great definition. Note the under-appreciated core quality - awareness. The client has to be aware of the problem to incur expenses to solve it. Here expensive refers to the price of the solution, not the impact of the problem.
This definition of expensive problem is so good, let’s use it to hack out a definition of a standard problem. A standard problem is:
A non-painful issue that a business is either unaware of, or aware of it but unwilling to resolve by paying money.
Let’s say you’re talking to the director of a large US university’s cafeteria system, let’s call her the Executive Director of On-Campus Dining. Her outfit provides 10,000 meals per day at, let’s say, 5 different on-campus cafeterias.
This is a big remit but if you ask her for her problems she might just give you a couple standard ones (that she is aware of that is):
the serving staff has been coming to work late almost every Saturday morning.
staff is generally gloomy in February and it makes the mood unpleasant at most of the cafeterias on campus.
Standard stuff. But can you spot the subtle difference? Or do they feel different to you, even if you can’t say how?
The first standard problem, of tardiness, is concrete. The second, of collective mood, is abstract. It may be standard min-Winter malaise but it’s not easily quantifiable.
So you say, ok, those sounds like pretty standard problems - but what keeps you up at night?
Standard vs Expensive Problems
The first answer she might give is around gluten-intolerance. She’ll say something like,
in the last 5 years all of the sudden 20% of our diners are gluten intolerant. The problem is that I can’t get my staff to consistently provide gluten-free options. It’s a both a purchasing problem and a meal-planning and food preparation problem.
This is, you guessed it, concrete.
But let’s imagine that she talks about a more abstract problem. She says:
the big problem I’m dealing with is rigidity. My staff of 400 has an overwhelmingly rigid mindset about what it is to run a cafeteria, about what the responsibilities and priorities are. A great example of this is catering to dietary restrictions such as gluten intolerance, but that’s one example. My staff is too rigid to respond to how fast society is changing with food and what people want and need to eat. Every year, new students come in with new needs.
As you can guess, abstract, expensive problems like mindset are the most problematic and difficult to solve.
And this of course is what makes them the fat cow for business solutions-providers such as consulting and software companies.
So when solutions providers take on functions like prospecting, marketing, solution-design, and selling, a lot of what they’re doing is to identify expensive vs concrete problems.
Before we continue, let’s turn the conversation back to the tech industry and reflect on a few examples.
7 Expensive Problems Solved by Tech Companies
Silo’d data (Mulesoft)
Silo’d or forgotten knowledge (Slack)
On-premise software (Salesforce)
Process-heavy software development (Agile, in general)
Spreadsheets for operations (Notion)
Lotsa data, little insight (Tableau)
Silo’d functionality - (Zapier)
For each of the above, set aside your feelings about the solution and ask yourself, do the buyers have a painful problem they are aware of that they are willing to spend some money to alleviate?
Problems vs Solutions 2x2
When we express the concrete-abstract, standard-expensive problem-solution matrix as a 2x2 chart, it goes something like this:
This is a 2x2 chart labeled “Problem-Solution Matrix”, with a Standard-to-Expensive X axis and a Concrete-to-Abstract Y axis, such that abstract and expensive problems, the fat cows of the B2B economy, lie in the upper right.
In the upper left, we have abstract but pretty standard problems, such as seasonal depression among staff. These are solved, if at all, through relatively inexpensive internal communication.
Moving counter-clockwise to the lower-left, we have concrete, standard problems. Average employee checks in at 8:13 instead of 8:00.
Sidebar – in my personal Utopia, this might be something of a non-problem, but let’s stick to the real the world here where we manage businesses like factories and people like factory parts.
In that world, tardiness has again a fairly inexpensive solution and nowadays at least, not one that you’d purchase an external solution for.
On the lower-right, we step into the realm of expensive: the expensive-concrete problem, such as the example of inability to cater to gluten-intolerance in customer diets. This might be solved internally by skillful management, better inventory software, or software-customization. But in in the interests of speed and of getting it right, it might also be better to incorporate external solutions, so that the right amounts of gluten-free and standard flour are purchased and so that gluten-free options become a part of the meal-planning of every cafeteria on campus.
Concrete, expensive problems are the easiest ones to sell solutions too.
But finally, on the upper-right quadrant lies the most profitable type of problem to sell solutions, the abstract but expensive one. This is where we talked earlier about what is probably a culture, training and leadership problem, in the form of rigidity.
Which brings us to villains.
Slight Digression on Terminology
BTW, in this discussion I’m using villain in a different sense than the villain of Donald Miller’s widely-known Storybrand framework.
In Storybrand, a villain is just an expensive problem, and often an abstract one. Sometimes it’s represented by a cartoon animation or a character.
In this article for example, Why Your Brand Should Pick a Fight (and How to Do It), he cites “noise” as Storybrand’s villain. He means noise vs signal. In the framework I’m proposing, through, noise is just an abstract problem that his customers suffer from - an abstract, expensive problem.
I digress to make a point - I don’t think my definition of villain is necessarily right and Storybrand’s or anyone else’s is necessarily wrong. I believe in being right about things, as a rule, but not when it comes to definitions.
After all, all definitions, even the ones in the dictionary, are ultimately 100% subjective.
As linguist and anti-propagandist Noam Chomsky has observed, “What we call definitions are not definitions … they’re just hints that a person who already knows the concept can use to understand what’s really going on””.
The question is, what do I want to hint at with this definition of villain? I want to frame out a business strategy (“villain strategy”) that draws on growing trend of shortening lifecycles.
Thus, I’m sticking to my definition of villain, which is as of the writing of this episode now a part of the Blue Elephant Dictionary.
Categorizing, Choosing, and Talking About Your Villain
Somewhere out there, a lean bootstrapped startup has a non-annoying alternative to Monday.com that helps large teams do project management better, more securely, less expensively, etc. For that startup and some of Monday’s customers, Monday is the villain.
Just as Basecamp was the villain of Monday.
And MS Project the villain of Basecamp.
And Excel-based project management the villain of MS project.
And print calendars and physical file folders the villain for Excel-based project management
(BTW, Excel is the single most common villain, by the Blue Elephant definition, in the tech industry).
Speaking of commons villains, that’s probably not where to look. You want a new, surprise villain - one that hasn’t already been slain in the marketing copy of 100 other startups last year.
And of course, you want it to really be a villain. The ones that exacerbate the very problem they were supposed to solve are the best kind of villain, followed by the ones that while they don’t exacerbate the problem, don’t solve it either, yet they suck up a lot of resources - the “Doesn’t Make It Worse” vector indicated below.
As you can see from the villain matrix, be careful in how you approach the “Doesn’t Make It Worse” crowd; it might be difficult to make assumptions about them from outside an organization, especially if they are a new, “Surprise” brand.
Instead focus on the ones you know are making it worse, and the easiest target is the surprising one, the one you know that hardly anything else has yet challenged - Slack, OpenAI, Canva, Figma (as of 2022). To be clear, these examples may not be villains for most of their customers. But for some, they are. For some, they are just a waste of time.
The other important caveat is that you have to do a lot of research and study before you can call out and name a villain with confidence. Some brands will prefer to do so in private communications – phone calls, demos.
But one thing that all four villain types have in common: they are all connected to expensive problems, that’s why they were able to sell their solution in the first place.
Salesforce was confident enough to bet their entire brand on the goofy “End of Software” message, with an icon of the word “Software” with a red line crossing through it. (Parenthetical note: software meant non-cloud software back in the day).
In doing so, they alluded to Oracle, SAP, maybe SAGE - those were their villains - while judiciously not naming them (lower left quadrant of the Villain 2x2 Matrix).
Having a villain strategy isn’t for every firm and those who do it well exercise restraint and temper it with “End of Software” good cheer.
Speaking of, seasons greetings!!
Postscript: It’s been a while since I published. I am happily consumed in a competing side-project and will be for the foreseeable near-future, so this isn’t a “comeback” - just wanted to air my thoughts on this subject as it’s been on my mind over the past few weeks. My next post might be an update on that project actually.
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